Tuesday, March 13, 2012

All Disease Begins in the Gut

“All disease begins in the gut.” ~Hippocrates

Although it’s been over two thousand years since Hippocrates made this statement, it has never been as true as it is today.  Our digestive tracts are passageways through one end of the body to the other that for the most part, provide a barrier between the outside world and our insides.  It’s only through the digestive process involving specialized cells that the nutrients from food actually enter the body and any disruption in the health, function, or interaction of these cells with each other or their environment can significantly compromise not only the absorption of nutrients but also our overall health.  

Working in conjunction with our intestinal cells are an array of healthy microbes that perform many functions that include out competing pathogenic bacteria and producing anti-bacterial factors, strengthening the intestinal wall, supporting the immune system, synthesis of nutrients like vitamin K, biotin, and folate, and the breakdown of carcinogens. 

Yet today, the lifestyles and diets of many of us have resulted in deficient intestinal flora.   Stress, poor diets, toxic chemicals in our food, water, and environment, consumption of alcohol, and frequent use of antibiotics all deplete our healthy supply of beneficial bacteria and provide opportunities for unhealthy bacteria and yeast strains to take over.   In addition, a weakened intestinal wall can disrupt the normal transport and surveillance of foods from the gut into the body and can trigger autoimmune reactions and lead to such things as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and eczema. 

One way to ensure that your intestinal tract stays as healthy as it can is to regularly repopulate your friendly gut bacteria.   There are several ways to achieve this.  First, and one of the easiest ways is to take a daily probiotic that contains strains such as Bifidobacteria and Acidophilus.  To be sure that you are getting a high-quality product, look for one that requires refrigeration and that assures potency at the date of expiration.

A second option is to eat cultured foods and there are many to choose from.  For example, yogurt and kefir are two distinct cultured dairy foods.  If you’re not familiar with kefir, it's similar to yogurt except that it contains strains of both yeast and bacteria and some believe it has more therapeutic value than yogurt.  Both cultured dairy foods can be found in most grocery stores.  The key is to choose brands that have little or no added sugars or artificial ingredients.  Both yogurt and kefir are fairly simple to make at home too with milk and a starter yogurt culture or kefir grains. 

If you avoid dairy products, there are a number of cultured foods to try, including cultured vegetables, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh, as well as additional fermented legumes, grains, and breads.  I frequently culture vegetables as a source of beneficial bacteria for a number of additional reasons:

- The fermentation process neutralizes any toxins in the vegetables themselves
- They provide the nutrients and fiber from the vegetables
- They are partially digested and easier on the stomach than raw vegetables

Here is how I normally do it using veggies like kale, cabbage, and carrots.  A useful book that explains how to culture a variety of foods, including dairy products, vegetables, legumes, grains, and breads is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.   It provides easy to follow step-by-step instructions.

Including a small serving of cultured foods in your diet everyday will help you maintain a healthy variety of beneficial microbes to keep your digestion running smoothly and your immune system strong.   Your gut will thank you!

Image courtesy of Ambro

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